The North Yorkshire town of Harrogate owes its existence to mineral waters. Once a tiny settlement in the thrall of neighbouring Knaresborough, the discovery of medicinal springs in the 16th century brought the place to prominence, and the discovery of dozens more in the 18th century created a spa town like no other. The cream of Georgian society visited to sample the waters, and their legacy is one of the most desirable places to live in the north of England. I'd say genteel and appealing without being snobby, although all my evidence comes from a brief two hour whizz-around, so who can tell? [8 photos]
The first spring to be exploited for medicinal gain was the Tewit Well, just to the south of the current town centre. A Tudor soldier named William Slingsby took his wife on a tour of Europe and noted, when he got home, that the waters bubbling out of the ground in Harrogate were similar to the esteemed source at Spa in Belgium. Stop now if you're considering marketing a gin called Slingsby, because a Harrogate-based business have beaten you to it, flavoured with local botanicals but made in Birmingham.
The real find was at a squelchy acre called Bogs Field, where 36 different springs bubble to the surface, each with a different mineral composition. Some are chalybeate, that's rich in iron, while others only a few feet away are more sulphurous. Some say that a greater number of mineral springs come to the surface here than in any other known location on earth, which if true is a damned impressive claim to fame. Today that boggy field has been swept away to create the centrepiece of an ornamental park named Valley Gardens, complete with Sun Pavilion, pergolas, artificial stream and paths for promenading. But scattered across the central flowerbed are several hatches, each still with a spring or well beneath, with a few sturdier cappingstructures located in rockeries to one side.
Originally health-seekers ladled the water from the earth, but things became more civilised as a spa society emerged. At the Old Sulphur Well a manageress called Betty Lupton dispensed the waters for six decades before a rotunda was built in 1843, and visitors then paid to enter the Royal Pump Room before breakfast to take the waters. A tap was provided outside to maintain public access, and still functions, although a notice alongside warns that this may no longer be especially beneficial to your health. Meanwhile the Pump Room has become the town's museum, along with the elegant annexe erected alongside in 1913, and £4 allows you inside for a walk around a few choice exhibits and a peer down the well. It's eye-opening to see how sick people invested so much trust in various forms of hydrotherapy before the advance of modern medicine and the NHS.
Only one of the former spa buildings dotted around High Harrogate is still used for taking the waters, somewhat more luxuriously than before, and that's the Turkish Baths on Parliament Street. The Grand Pump Room at the Royal Baths is now a Chinese restaurant, while the Promenade Rooms have in their time been a library, the town hall and a housing benefits office, and are now the town's Mercer Art Gallery. I enjoyed the latest pair of exhibitions here, one a portmanteau retrospective of the collection's 25 years, the other a tribute to artist/illustrator Isabel Alexander whose Ravilious-esque works evoke the wider British landscape. That's all free to visit, but sorry, closed on Mondays.
The northwestern side of town is the most debonair, that's Montpelier Quarter, with leftover hotels and theatres from Harrogate's Victorian heyday. This is also where you'll find the legendary Betty's Tea Rooms, founded by a Swiss confectioner in 1919, its exterior alas currently veiled beneath scaffolding. Here lovely ladies (and some of their husbands) take tea and cakes and fancies, while the adjacent shop provides sticky goodies if the queue at the door's too long. Visible outside is one end of The Stray - 200 acres of grassland forming a kind of Green Belt (or rather Green Crescent) around half the town centre. First protected from development in 1778, townspeople kicked up such a fuss when the council dared to suggest ploughing up a small area for flower beds that the plan was immediately withdrawn. Crocuses are perfectly acceptable, however, and should provide the usual spectaculardisplay in a few weeks time.
A much more modern facility is the Harrogate International Centre, one of the largest conference venues in the country, beaten only by Birmingham and London. A suite of eight exhibition halls leads back from the Edwardian Royal Hall towards an alien rotunda squatting beside the Holiday Inn. This 2000-seater auditorium was completed in 1982, perfectly timed for its first event to be the hosting of that year's Eurovision Song Contest. The continent's finest tunesmiths descended on Harrogate, where a beaming Jan Leeming hosted the show in which Nicole took first place for Germany, Bardo came 7th and Finland scored nul points. This was back in an era when the whole thing could be wrapped up in 2¼ hours flat, and rewatching the awkwardly parochial first few minutes I was struck how similar the town looks today, but blimey how fashions and polite society have changed.
And then there are the shops. These are quite upmarket, befitting Harrogate's affluent reputation, with designer labels arrayed beneath ironworked arcades in the pedestrianised centre. But there's still room for a Primark, TK Maxx and Asda, plus several independent traders of endearingly local provenance. The office block on top of the station looks misjudged, the Big Issue remains on sale and the smart avenues don't go on forever, but it's easy to see Harrogate's consummate appeal. Never assume that all of 'The North' is the same, especially if you've never made the effort to visit.